I admit it: I felt intimidated by Jennifer Lawrence. Before we met at a Toronto hotel on Monday, I was already impressed by the 19-year-old actress. In The Burning Plain, she grabbed my attention with her thousand-yard stare and her ability to convey a compelling inner life. And in the gritty drama Winter's Bone - a Sundance hit that opens in select cities on Friday - her performance as Ree, a supernally mature Ozarks teenager who has to track down her meth-cooking father in order to save her meagre family home, is a revelation of control. Her sense of when to hold back and when to give over is almost freakishly impressive.
And in person, well, let's just say this is one confident young woman. She arrived in skinny jeans, a textured silk bolero jacket and snakeskin peep-toe platform pumps whose soaring, six-inch heels would defeat a lesser woman, but Lawrence never wobbled. We started out on opposite corners of the sofa, but as she talked, Lawrence unfurled her legs inch by inch, unconsciously claiming more and more of the space (that is, I'm pretty sure it was unconscious). I ended up squished in a corner, but honestly, I didn't care - I'm a Darwinian. The species evolves, and Lawrence is clearly the next iteration.
She's in almost every scene of Winter's Bone, many of them harrowing. There are beatings and dismemberments, and she has to communicate pain, disgust and sorrow, sometimes all at once. Most actors are happy to tell you how they suffered for their art. Not this one. "To you it looks emotionally straining," she said, "but I don't get emotionally drained, because I don't invest any of my real emotions." Not only does she not take any of her characters' pain home with her, "I don't even take it to craft services," she zinged. (For those who don't live on movie sets, craft services is the catered snack table.)
So if she's not using her real emotions, what does she use? Lawrence fixed me with a patient look and replied, "Imagination. I've never been through anything that my characters have been through. And I can't go around looking for roles that are exactly like my life. So I just use my imagination. If it ever came down to the point where, to make a part better, I had to lose a little bit of my sanity, I wouldn't do it. I would just do comedies."
She paused, looking at her hands. "So many people, after they've seen my movies, expect me to be intense and dark, and I'm not at all. Oh, look - I forgot to take the polish off this nail."
Lawrence was so matter-of-fact about everything, I was continually blown away. For example, on acting, she said, "I never did theatre or took classes, which I think has helped me. I just had instincts and they were right."
On being bossy: "I don't think I'm always right. I'm a good listener, and I'm open to being told I'm wrong. But by the time I say something, it's already gone through the nine levels in my head, and probably it is right. So I might as well say it."
On cutting open a squirrel for Winter's Bone: "I should say it wasn't real, for PETA. But screw PETA."
On the poverty she saw in the Ozarks: "I never felt sorry for the people. Those are their homes and their families. They probably feel sorry for us because we don't have dinner with our family every night. And yes, there are men in our movie who say things like, 'I told you to shut up once, with my mouth.' But there are men in this city who say, 'I'll be spending the night at the office,' and they'll be sleeping with their secretaries. It's different, but it's the same."
And on working with director/co-star Jodie Foster on her next film, The Beaver: "We both walked away thinking the same thing: 'I've never met anybody who reminds me of me more.' As far as methods go, neither of us have one. Like me, she doesn't take any of it to heart. We both think of this as a job, and don't understand why you suddenly have to become an a-hole when you become successful at it. We're both perfectly fine with technical directions: 'Hunch your shoulders more, lift your head up higher.' And we both hate b.s. directing, like, 'Imagine your puppy just died.' If you want me to cry, just say cry."
At 14, Lawrence convinced her parents to take her from her native Louisville, Ky., to New York to audition for talent agencies. "They said it was the best cold read they'd ever heard from a 14-year-old," Lawrence said. "My mom told me they were lying." She laughed. "My parents were the exact opposite of stage parents. They did everything in their power to keep it from happening. But it was going to happen no matter what. I was like, 'Thanks for raising me, but I'm going to take it from here.'"
Lawrence's parents made her a deal: She could try acting if she graduated from high school first. She did, with a 3.9 average, two years early. "I never considered that I wouldn't be successful," Lawrence said. "I never thought, 'If acting doesn't work out I can be a doctor.' The phrase 'If it doesn't work out' never popped into my mind. And that dumb determination of being a naive 14-year-old has never left me."
Lawrence got work immediately, first in commercials, then on TV shows including Monk and Medium. She co-starred in the cable series The Bill Engvall Show, and landed her first independent film, The Poker House, at 16 (she played an abuse victim). Lawrence summed up her rise thus: "From 15 to 16 I sucked, because I had no idea what I was doing. Then I slowly stopped sucking. I never think I'm above reality or exempt from disaster. But I'm a hard worker, and when I set my mind to something, it usually happens." She now lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with her dog, a Yorkie. Her next goal is to direct. She's convinced she'll be good at it.
Only once did Lawrence sound like a regular 19-year-old - when she told me how her high-school nemesis, Meredith, once asked her to hand out a stack of invitations to a birthday party she wasn't invited to. "Who does that?" Lawrence asked. "You're just outing yourself as mean. Even the Nazis didn't do what they did simply to be evil." She guffawed. "I'm so happy I'm comparing Meredith to a Nazi. I hope she reads this."
Unlike lesser mortals, however, Lawrence coolly responded to Meredith's goading in the moment. "I started whistling," she said, "and I walked over to the trash can and I dumped them in. Then when I had a birthday party, I invited her. I won."
I'll say. As if Meredith ever stood a chance.